Ronnie Cowan MP
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and to add my voice to over 100 years of debate on the subject of reforming the House of Lords. The unresolved discussion on Lords reform has been going on for so long that an annual debate on the subject must surely now be considered a parliamentary tradition. In 1908, the Queen’s great-grandfather was the reigning monarch, while New Zealand had just become an independent country. It was also the year in which the Rosebery report made recommendations on how peers should be selected to the Lords. Such is the pace of change at Westminster that here we are, 110 years later, still tinkering around the edges of our bloated and unelected upper Chamber. After all that time, the proposed reforms before us today hardly seem worth the wait.
That is especially the case when we consider that it could take up to 15 years to reduce the size of the Lords to 600 Members. Why 600? I have read the report and nowhere does it explain why the Committee decided on 600. Did they consider how many Lords contribute to debates, Committees or groups? Some do. As was eloquently explained in the opening remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), some make very valuable contributions, but do 600? When the Lords debated the issue, 61 Members took part—that is 61 out of the 799 currently eligible peers. When the Lord Speaker’s Committee launched a consultation, 62 Members contributed.
The reduction from 826 peers is undoubtedly progress, but we are merely reducing the size of the problem, not solving it. To underscore the timid nature of these proposals, new Members of the Lords would still have a guaranteed position for 15 years. We would retain 92 hereditary peers. We would retain the Lords Spiritual, 26 archbishops and bishops. We would retain the royal office-holders, Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain. Of course, reducing the peers to 600 but protecting the hereditary and spiritual peers would also mean they made up a greater proportion of the unelected House.
I ask hon. Members whether they are happy to go out into their constituencies and argue in favour of an upper House of unelected appointees with 15-year terms—a House that has no mechanism for the public to hold its Members to account, in which the ability or suitability of its Members is completely outwith the control of the electorate. Would they be happy to speak with constituents face to face and tell them that our modern Parliament should include unelected bishops and hereditary peers, the heirs of long-forgotten generals, admirals and landowning aristocracy? Where is the progress towards a balanced House, by gender, geography or religion? How do we know that minorities are represented? We do not, and we will not, because the Committee’s remit was to address only the size of the House. I acknowledge the good work done by the Committee, but its hands were tied before it even started to write.
Here we are, skirting around the issue and ignoring the core question of whether we should even have an unelected Chamber. What does that say about the nature of Westminster? The “mother of Parliaments” has spawned many legislatures around the world, many of which have long overtaken us in their ability to reform and adapt to the changed needs of their political systems. Westminster, on the other hand, limply staggers on without any of the energy or imagination that characterises other Parliaments.
Luke Graham MP [Intervention]
We have heard comments from my side of the House in favour of reform, but the hon. Gentleman is characterising Westminster as something that limply goes on with no energy. This is the Parliament that brought in the NHS. It has introduced hundreds of technological innovations, spawned justice systems around the world and led the world in many innovations. To say that our Parliament is without energy and “limply staggers on” is unfair.
Ronnie Cowan MP
The hon. Gentleman makes my point perfectly. When did we introduce the NHS? It was in the 1950s. The last time I checked, this was 2017.
The buildings that make up this Parliament are themselves reflective of what is happening here. They are rotten and crumbling. According to a headline in The Guardian:
“Parliament’s buildings risk ‘catastrophic failure’ without urgent repairs”.
It is estimated that the final repair bill may be more than £3.5 billion. We know, however, that the problems facing this place are deeper than crumbling masonry and decaying stonework. The institutions themselves are in need of urgent repair but, with another opportunity to genuinely reform the House of Lords, we have decided instead to paper over the cracks. We have had a century of debates like this one on deciding what colour and pattern that paper will be, yet the cracks remain underneath.
Limiting the length of terms, reducing the size of the Chamber and minimising the number of appointments the Prime Minister can make represents progress, but they are the smallest possible first steps towards reforming the Lords into a Chamber fit for 21st-century democracy. Lord Burns said that these proposals are a
“radical yet achievable solution to the excessive size of the House of Lords”.
With respect to Lord Burns and the Lord Speaker’s Committee, these proposals are not radical and will only reinforce public anger at and scepticism of Westminster politics. Most people will simply look at this situation and see a Committee of Lords concluding that the privileged position of other peers should be more or less protected.
I know that Members from all parts of the House want genuine reform, but let us be realistic: the UK Government have no authority and are barely surviving. As the country moves steadily closer to a Brexit cliff edge, Parliament has neither the time nor the political energy to tackle Lords reform when so much else is happening. Meanwhile, people in my constituency of Inverclyde and across Scotland will look at Lords reform as just another example of this Parliament’s inability to change. They may soon decide that powers resting here may be better placed in a unicameral Parliament—and that Parliament is in Edinburgh.